The Rivers of Babylon/Ps. 137

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This psalm begins with a heartfelt lament, and concludes with a savage benediction. This apparent incongruity has been a trouble to many Christians, and so we need to take care as we meditate on, and worship by means of, a psalm like this one. It is quite possible that I will create more questions than I answer this morning, but I believe these are questions we really need to have.

The Text

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; Who said, rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Ps. 137).

Summary of the Text

Babylon was situated on a plain, and was crisscrossed by both rivers and canals. Rivers provide one of the most natural metaphors for sorrow and weeping (Lam. 2:18; 3:38), and it was next to the rivers of Babylon that the Israelite exiles sat and wept, remembering Zion (v. 1). Instead of singing, and instead of hanging up their instruments in the hall of feasting in their homeland, they placed their harps on the willows there (v. 2)—those willows being another natural metaphor for weeping. The Israelites had come to the river to lament, but the Babylonian onlookers demanded a happy song, a song of Zion (v. 3), which the captives refused to do (v. 4). To do something like that would actually be to forget Jerusalem, and rather than do such a thing, the psalmist would prefer that his right hand forget how to play (v. 5). If he were to do that, forgetting Jerusalem as his chief joy, he would prefer that his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth (v. 6).

The psalm then turns to the question of the Lord’s vengeance. Edom was related to Israel, as neighbors and kinsmen, and yet in their malice and hatred, they egged the Babylonians on (v. 7). The next verse comes as a prophecy (“who art to be destroyed”), and it is stated as a strict form of the lex talionis—happy the one who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah (v. 8). Happy the one who dashes the infants of Babylon against the rocks (v. 9).

A Statement of the Problem

Many Christians assume that the self-maledictory prayer in vv. 5-6 somehow did come true in v. 9—his right hand did forget its cunning, and his mouth did form a grotesque blessing. They believe that the discordant and jarring conclusion of the psalm, after such a beautiful beginning, is truly unfortunate. But this is simply too facile.

The psalmist knew what was entailed in the fall of a city, and he knew that to pray for that fall would bring all that it entailed along with it. You cannot pray for the airliner to crash, and then be surprised at the fact that passengers died. This is no less true in modern warfare than in ancient warfare. When Babylon fell, enemy warriors dashed their children to death. But American drone strikes have killed children just as dead. The objection will come that the “collateral damage” we inflict in warfare is accidental, not deliberate, and this is true enough—a vestige of our earlier Christian commitment to just war theory. More on this in a moment.

First, An Actual Prophecy

In the fifth year of Darius, the Babylonians revolted against him. When he surrounded the city with his massive army, the Babylonians decided that their only hope was to try to hold out through the siege as long as possible. And so they rounded up their own wives, sisters, and children, anyone useless to the war effort, and strangled them. The men were allowed to keep one wife, along with one maid-servant to do the housework. That is what the Babylonians were actually like.

We recoil, but we have been far more hard-hearted than that. If we are talking about little bodies, our body count exceeds theirs by massive amounts. Our national policy, seen in Roe over the course of decades, has been deliberate, not accidental, and so we are objectively far more ghoulish than the Babylonians ever were. We dismember the babies and sell the pieces. So if anyone gets to ask pointed questions about such imprecatory psalms, hard-hearted Babylonians don’t get to. Nor do any squishy evangelicals who voted for Obama or Biden.

That said, questions remain.       

Not an Old Covenant Thing

We sometimes seek a cheap way out when it comes to questions like this. When we can say something like, “Well, that’s in the Old Testament . . .” and then everyone leaves us alone, there is a temptation to do just that. But it will not suffice.

The destruction of Babylon was a type of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Herod the Great was an Idumean (an Edomite, see v. 7), and he was the one who had the boys around Bethlehem slaughtered. Judah had become a new Egypt (Ex. 1:22), Judah had become a new Babylon.

And so it is that the only place in the New Testament where the word Hallelujah is used is when the saints of God in heaven behold the demolition of Babylon (Jerusalem). “And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3).

Even though we are in the new covenant era, wars still occur, as we see in Ukraine. And we should know that if we have prayed for Putin to fail, as I have prayed, we have also prayed for the consequences of Putin failing, which will include massive hardships for many innocent Russians. The new covenant has not altered that reality yet.

Not Given to Us As a Bad Example

This psalm, and other psalms like it, are not included in Scripture so that we would see the sin involved in them, and shy away from the “bad example.” This is a place where even the great C.S. Lewis swings and misses. He grants the “uncharity of the poets,” and says that they “are indeed devilish.” He then goes on to explain how badly they were provoked, as a way of contextualizing their sin.

The problem with this is that Christians are commanded to sing these psalms, all of them (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). We are instructed to sing these psalms when we are “merry” (Jas. 5:13). The psalms are quoted in the New Testament very frequently, and the imprecatory psalms are not excluded from these quotations (Acts 1:20; Ps. 109:8ff). And all of this is urged upon us with no warning label whatever. We are commanded to sing them, and presumably the Lord wants us to understand what we are singing.

Neither can we pretend that the ethic of love for your enemy was a New Testament innovation. We see this in various places.

“If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.”

Exodus 23:4–5 (KJV)

“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, And let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.”

Prov. 24:17 (KJV)

“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he be thirsty, give him water to drink.”

Prov. 25:21 (KJV)

And at the same time, we are told that we can have a Bible passage in mind, and be able to refer to it when asked, and yet still not know “what spirit we are of” (Luke 9:55). So take as your example the way David spoke of the enemies of God (Ps. 139:21), and also the way that he spoke of and behaved toward his own personal enemies (2 Sam. 1:19; 1 Sam. 24:5).

Not Fixed by Distance

Sometimes we try to address things like this by creating an artificial distance, doing this with years, with jokes, or with context. An old Scots psalter rendered the psalm this way:

Blessed shall the trooper be
Comes riding on his naggie,
Who takes your wee bairns by the taes,

And dings them on the craigie.

For an example of altering the context, some of you have seen video footage from the war in Ukraine, where a column of Russian tanks is being taken out by Javelin missiles—and it looks to you like a video game. But what you are seeing is husbands, sons, and brothers dying. Pacifism is a heresy, and we should never give way to it, not for an instant. It is far too simplistic. But neither should we give way to the simplistic delusions of a blind militarism, one that dehumanizes the enemy for the sake of keeping the simplistic white hats/black hats approach.

When I was a very young boy I looked up to my father as a war hero. He had earned nine battle stars in the Korean War, and I thought he was the epitome of what a warrior should be like. And one time I had gone down to a corner drug store which was a block or two away, and I bought a war story comic book. My father found me reading it, and made me take it back. The reason was that “the Japs” in comic book were scarcely recognizable as human, and my father explained to me that when you go to war, as is necessary at times, you are going to war with men created in the image of God, you are going to war with brothers, and fathers, and sons. This does not take away from the jubilation of victory (Judg. 5:28-30), but it does lend a certain gravity to it.

Quick Takeaways

  • In the invasion of Canaan, the wars of total annihilation that God commanded Israel to conduct were holy, righteous, and good. God was using Israel the same way He uses earthquakes and volcanoes, as a divine judgment on great wickedness. This was righteous genocide (Dt. 20:16-18).
  • Once Canaan was conquered, and the Canaanites wiped out, ordinary warfare was to be conducted in obedience to laws (Dt. 20:19), not specific revelation. This would be the foundation of subsequent Christian views of just war.
  • With the advent of the Christ, and the formation of the new Israel of God, our warfare to advance the kingdom of God is not conducted by means of carnal weapons (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Our weapons are indeed potent, and have an effect in the world, but they are not the central means that we are to use. Our central weapons now are Word and water, bread and wine.
  • From time to time, even with nations heavily influenced by the gospel, ordinary wars will break out, and the causes involved in those wars can be righteous, or unrighteous, or a totally confused muddle of both. In these circumstances, Christians are obligated to submit to the criteria of just war that began to be developed by the great Augustine, and which have been refined down to the present. This would flatly exclude targeting non-combatants deliberately.
  • There is a spiritual war going on, and in that war, we are to show no mercy to our internal adversaries. “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). This is an important component of the spiritual warfare mentioned a moment ago (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

The Brats of Babylon

We really do want God to rise up and scatter His enemies (Ps. 68:1). But God has two ways of doing this. He can destroy His enemies with old school means, in which they are simply annihilated. He can also destroy His enemies by transforming them into friends. That is how he destroyed His one-time enemy, that persecutor called Saul of Tarsus. I saw a meme online that illustrated this quite pointedly. It said that when the apostle Paul entered into Heaven, he was greeted with the applause of those he had martyred.

“And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”

Matthew 21:44 (KJV)

So Christ is the stone, and if we fall on Him in repentance, we will be gloriously broken. But if He falls on us, then we will be crushed. So as Christians, our prayers of imprecation must really be Christocentric. And you can test the condition of your spirit in this way. If you are praying for your enemy to be destroyed, and God gloriously converts him, and your initial response is “no, no, not that way,” then that should be cause for self-examination. But Christ is the Rock either way.

And in the meantime, learn to treat your sins, and I am speaking especially of the little ones, the ones you want to show mercy to, as the brats of Babylon. Your sanctification is a war of total annihilation. Dash them against the rocks.

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